Calvary, film review: Dark religious comedy is caustic look at the sins of the fathers

Amid the black humour, it stands up as a moving and sincere drama

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned,” reads the quote that opens Calvary. It’s attributed to St Augustine but was also one of Samuel Beckett’s favourite paradoxes. There is a strong whiff of Beckett-like absurdism and bleak humour in the film, which benefits from a performance of wonderfully droll dignity and bemusement from Brendan Gleeson as a priest confronting his mortality.

John Michael McDonagh's previous feature, The Guard, like his brother Martin's films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, was a shaggy dog story, funny, macabre, and whimsical by turns. Calvary has altogether more heft to it. The tone is set right at the outset as we see Gleeson's priest Father James in close up, hearing confession from an unseen man. The shot of Gleeson is held for a mini-eternity as the man details the extreme abuse he suffered as a child. He was seven years old when he "first tasted semen" and was raped "orally and anally" by a "bad" priest. Gleeson's character is a "good" priest but the man has decided to kill him anyway - and will give him until a week on Sunday to set his affairs in order.

The scene wrong foots and challenges the audience. Initially, it seems comic but there is nothing funny in child sexual abuse. Father James is uncertain how seriously to take the threat to his life.

McDonagh's portrayal of a rural Irish community is very caustic, indeed. Casual racism (something also evident in The Guard), wife-beating, alcoholism and theft prevail. Characters may look as if they're eccentrics on leave from some Ealing-style comedy but most are either psychopathic or tormented. The community even has its own Hannibal Lecter-like cannibal, a sweet-natured young man who tells the Priest that human flesh tasted like pheasant, a bit "gamey".

Meat and murder: Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary Meat and murder: Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary Without labouring the point, McDonagh makes it clear that we are in an Ireland still reeling from economic collapse. The local squire Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) stands for the banker types who grew filthy rich during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger. In one grotesque scene, we see him take a Holbein masterpiece from his wall and urinate on it to demonstrate to the priest his disdain for worldly goods. The painting is Holbein's The Ambassadors, famous for its anamorphic skull and yet another reminder for the priest that death is nearby. The scene is shot low down and behind him from between his legs so that we can see the priest in the background as the liquid splatters on the canvas.

The humour in Calvary is almost always undercut by references to death, suffering and violence. Characters show a reckless contempt for one another and they all love to goad and provoke the priest. The promiscuous Veronica Brennan (Orla O'Rourke) is keen to share details about her latest romantic trysts. Dr Frank Harte ( Aidan Gillen), the proud atheist who sees plenty of extreme suffering at the local hospital, relishes telling the priest grim stories about victims of freak accidents. Simon Asamoah (Isaach de Bankolé), the Ghana-born mechanic, flicks ash on him and threatens him with physical violence. The butcher (Chris O'Dowd) taunts him relentlessly. The local detective inspector (Gary Lydon) is relentlessly sarcastic about the church. The priest's fiery-tempered daughter (Kelly Reilly), who comes to visit him from London, is still angry at him for his abandonment of her.

In Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an obvious inspiration here, a rural community treats a young priest with disdain because he is young, effete and has  a high-minded view of religion entirely out  of keeping with the grind of their daily lives. Gleeson's character, by contrast, is worldly wise. He may be dressed in a soutane but that doesn't stop him driving a sports car, usually with his beloved dog in the passenger seat.

Read more: Chris O'Dowd: From Bridesmaids to Broadway
Aidan Gillen is taking on an existential crisis

McDonagh litters the film with visual gags and trademark cynical, wisecracking dialogue. His view of human nature often seems bleak.  "A friend is just an enemy you haven't made yet," is a typical one-liner. After an unexplained fire, the cops refuse to rule out terrorist involvement... at least until a local observer drags them back to their senses, pointing out, "I don't think Sligo is too high on Al Qaeda's agenda."

The wonder of Calvary is that amid all the blarney and black humour, it stands up as a moving and sincere drama about religious faith and the fear of death. McDonagh includes many shots of Father James alone against rugged landscapes or walking down a deserted beach. We see his face frequently in close up.

The director has talked about the humour in Calvary being Buñuelian, "anarchic, dark and lacerating". In films from Un Chien Andalou to Viridiana, Buñuel excoriated Catholicism and mocked its priests. McDonagh does something similar in Calvary. Nonetheless, Father James is still the hero of the film: its only character not driven by self-interest. Gleeson squeezes out the pathos and the comedy in a man who dotes on his pet dog and is as comfortable around guns and alcohol as he is giving communion. At the same time, he gives Father James grace and moral authority - and those are not qualities that we've encountered before in films from either of the McDonagh brothers.

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital